It’s been seven months since a threat of seizure for the public good was made for the decrepit Vail Court, near Central Square, but nothing has changed – so a city councillor has made the threat again.
The 24-unit apartment complex has been largely boarded up for about a decade, maddening officials and developers who think there’s a better use for the 0.65-acre property – at 139 Bishop Allen Drive, only a block from Massachusetts Avenue and the heart of Central Square – than as potentially illegal parking lot and prize in a slow-moving court case.
On Monday, vice mayor Dennis Benzan asked for word back from the city manager on what’s happened with Vail Court and that threat of eminent-domain land seizing since councillor E. Denise Simmons made it in a May 19 policy order.
Litigation and land takings
Based on councillor Nadeem Mazen’s conversations with owners, though, a land taking isn’t an option now.
“The whole thing is a moot point as far as I understand. The city can’t do a taking – the owners are still in litigation and we literally wouldn’t know whom to take from,” Mazen said Tuesday.
“Once an owner emerges from litigation with deed in hand, they will develop, whichever side wins,” he said.
That won’t be soon. John Maciolek, a Worcester lawyer representing the owners against Abeer Inc., said there might be six more months of pretrial discovery before a possible bid for a court to make a swift finding on its own, called summary judgment. If that fails, there could be a full trial.
“It will definitely take some time to sort out,” Maciolek said. “We don’t really have a timetable.”
Owners Six-S Realty Trust consisted of Mohammed Abu-Zahra and his five brothers, although the property was managed by their sister, Samira Jallad. In the owners’ story of Vail Court, the property was slated in 2005 to go condo, and the trust was allowing the units to empty out in then anticipation of tear-down and reconstruction. But the plans, greeted warmly by the Planning Board, were never put into place, and over the next few years the space continued to be used mainly as a parking lot. In 2009 the License Commission drew Jallad into a series of hearings over whether the parking use was allowed by city law.
Local property owner Patrick Barrett, who said he once offered several million for the property only to see a sale announced for a lesser $4 million before failing, gives a different take on Six-S Realty Trust’s ownership and Jallad’s management. “They did not empty these places to prepare for any development, they vacated them because they were so poorly managed the building farthest from Bishop Allen had to be shut down,” Barrett has said. “No reasonable effort has been made to make the property safe or clean up the graffiti. I’m not sure I’d be comfortable with them managing another parcel on this site, as they surely have nothing but contempt for Cambridge and their abutters.”
On Monday, Barrett called eminent domain “a heavy, heavy stick” that even at Vail Court “might be a little aggressive.”
Still, he called the project dilapidated as a result of having “probably the worst landlord in Central Square,” and said there were property owners in the square, including him, “who would like to see more interaction with the council and from the city relative to issues of graffiti and cleanliness. We all do our part, but there’s no mechanism to deal with those who do not.”